BallÂ Four by Jim Bouton (Wiley, 1990), 472 pages.
In recent times, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball prompted a sizeable backlash from the baseball establishment, yet that reaction was nothing compared to the shock, horror, anger and bitterness that raged upon the publication of Ball Four in 1970.
Jim Bouton was an outspoken relief pitcher who decided to keep a daily diary of his 1969 season, beginning with the expansion Seattle Pilots and ending with the Houston Astros. Such projects are so common nowadays that the concept would be met with ambivalence. Not so In 1970. This was an era when the general public’s perception of baseball players was the â€œmilk and cookiesâ€ version that the baseball establishment wanted them to believe; where MLB clubhouses were branded with signs stating: â€œWhat you say here, what you do here, let it stay here, when you leave hereâ€. Bouton wasn’t breaking an unspoken rule, he was directly flouting the law of the clubhouse.
As such, he became public enemy number one within the baseball establishment, while gaining heroic status among baseball fans. Indeed, the reaction from within the professional ranks served to enhance Bouton’s reputation as a renegade and was pure publicity gold. Ball Four quickly gained legendary status and that position is undiminished even today. While the ‘shock’ of reading about the players’ off-field activities might be lessened for someone picking up the book in 2008, its main quality will always stand the test of time. Ball Four provides an endless stream of hilarious stories that will have you howling with laughter.
It’s precisely this point that makes the book so engrossing. A day-by-day account of a long MLB season could quite easily slip into repetitive drudgery. ‘Went to the ballpark, pitched to four batters, the team lost. Next day, didn’t pitch, we won in extra innings etc’. Ball Four never gets bogged down in such tedium thanks to Bouton’s storytelling ability and the many characters and events that he encounters. You also gain the understanding that such little moments, a funny tale or bit of gossip shared in the bullpen, are essential in alleviating the sameness of a season for the players themselves.
Although it is an immensely funny book in its own right, the controversy it caused when first published has become part of the whole Ball Four experience. One of the benefits of this ‘Twentieth Anniversary edition’ is that you get to read ‘Ball Five’ and ‘Ball Six’, Bouton’s epilogues from 1980 and 1990 which partly explain the reaction to the book and the way he has been treated as a result.
It’s amazing to read how Bowie Kuhn, the MLB Commissioner when Ball Four was published, literally tried to make Bouton sign a document stating that book was â€œa bunch of liesâ€. It’s frankly sad to read the way Bouton was ostracised by many within the game, barred from attending Oldtimers’ day at Yankee stadium and either verbally abused or pointedly ignored. Players on the San Diego Padres’s roster even burned a copy of the book and left the charred remains for Bouton to discover in the clubhouse.
Did it deserve such a response? Well, simply revealing details from the inner sanctum of MLB was enough to draw the ire of many, but Bouton certainly didn’t avoid talking about topics that painted those mentioned in a less than perfect light.
MLB didn’t need the managerial techniques of Pilots’ manager, Joe Schultz, to be summed up by his rallying cry of â€œpound that Budweiserâ€ – Schultz certainly didn’t need it because he probably had people shouting it at him every day until he died in 1996. MLB certainly didn’t want Bouton to expose the rampant use of ‘greenies’ or to reveal the cheating ways of baseball gods such as Whitey Ford, who would surreptitiously gouge and muddy the ball.
The owners would have been aghast to read claims that they were less than honest when it came to dealing with players in the days of the reserve clause. And many a ballplayer would have been subjected to an inquisition from their partner(s!) thanks to Bouton’s many descriptions of their favourite pastime: chasing women (whether sleeping with air stewardesses or so-called ‘Baseball Annies’, or simply â€œbeaver shootingâ€ – a gloriously distasteful phrase liable to incite sniggers from any male teenager).
But of course, all the above are exactly what made reading Ball Four in 1970 such a hoot, as they still do today.
You need to own a copy of Ball Four for three main reasons. Firstly, it is an invaluable insight into what life was like for Major Leaguers at the time. Secondly, thanks to the extraordinary storm it caused, it is an important book for any new baseball fan to read. And finally, it is incredibly funny. This is not a book you will read once and put back up on the shelf to gather dust before finding its way to a charity shop years later. Several times over the course of an MLB season, something will happen that brings an incident from Ball Four to mind and soon you will be devouring the pages once again.
Nothing short of an essential purchase for any baseball fan.
Have you read â€œBall Fourâ€? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.